Robert Melville was a writer, gallerist and the art critic of the New Statesman from 1954 to 1976. His interest was in the modern school and he had helped bring Francis Bacon to public attention and had also written a book about Picasso. In 1974 he reviewed two exhibitions of the work of Lucian Freud, one a major retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, the other of an early sketchbook at his dealer, Anthony d’Offay’s gallery. The painter, at that point, was well known but not regarded as a top-tier artist, his work being seen as an extension of the traditional forms of portraiture and figure painting. An exhibition at the Hayward Gallery was to change perceptions and help propel him to international status and the rewards, both financial and reputational, that went with it.
Lucian Freud was born in Berlin in 1922 and, according to the catalogue of his retrospective show at the Hayward, he ran the streets of Berlin from the age of seven until he came to England in 1933. It seems that in those four eventful years of his childhood he “learned to outrun, outfight and outsmart the future leaders of the Berlin underworld”. Some mark of these early experiences is disclosed in the sketchbook pages at the d’Offay Gallery [“Lucian Freud: Pages from a Sketchbook of 1941”], which were started during the five months he spent in the Merchant Navy at the age of 19. His use of line in a number of the sketches indicates a sharp awareness of the Berlin drawings of George Grosz. A style of his own was emerging before the sketchbook was filled, and the portrait drawing of David Gascoyne makes the suggestion in the Hayward catalogue that he was conscious at the time of “an almost total lack of natural talent” look like a figment of someone’s imagination. He was about as untalented as Aubrey Beardsley.
After a period of sophisticated primitivism in which he made brilliantly comic use of Picasso and Miro, he achieved a series of portraits, almost without shadows and sparing of detail, but in the treatment of hair, fur and the soft jewellery of the eyes unbelievably precise. In effect, the result was a renewal of the Elizabethan art of limning, and for a brief heavenly spell English painting was once again the drawing of contours and the filling of the spaces between the lines with smooth sparkling colours. These portraits are hanging together on a partition, and apart from a drawing called Man at Night they are all devoted to the likeness of one wide-eyed girl. In the two transcendent examples, the girl is accompanied by objects which acquire the significance of emblems. She holds a rose in the well-known picture which belongs to the British Council, and Elizabethans would have recognised it as an emblem of the pain and joy of love; in the smaller but even finer painting she is holding a fiercely glaring tabby kitten [Girl with a Kitten of 1947 shows Freud’s first wife, Kathleen Garman, the daughter of the sculptor Jacob Epstein], which Elizabethans might have found a puzzling substitute for the ermine, symbol of chastity. Actually, she is not so much holding the rose and the kitten as clutching them with undisguised possessiveness, and their presence makes any sign of emotion on her face unnecessary. She has a careful impassivity, as if withholding disquiet. The portraits are alive and they can see, but they defy mutability. They are so beautiful that they are remote and live in a better world than ours.
Immediately afterwards, the paintings take a turn towards our grosser world, and the realism begins to hurt. The portrait of John Minton has a piercing sadness. The portrait of Francis Bacon with lowered eyes has a Germanic intensity; it’s as if Grunewald had started a noli me tangere. The wide-eyed girl appears once more, in a green dressing gown, with a dog resting its head in her lap, but she has come back to our edgy, nerve-ridden world. Another girl appears. She has yellow hair and a charming face, and the images of her are still controlled by line.
By the end of the Fifties Freud is drawing with a loaded brush, and the faces ate marred by broad, highly visible paint strokes. In the frightening Woman Smiling he takes no account of human pride. He finds or invents a fearsome tattoo of blood clots under the skin. I wish he had fallen for Modigliani instead of Soutine. A London environment characterised by a kind of tawdry austerity closes round some of his sitters, and looks like being a permanent feature of his work. The recent Large Interior W9 is the most powerful of these bleak interiors with figures, and is a remarkable contribution to the long tradition of English narrative painting. The story happens to be impenetrable, but he has established a complex relationship between an old lady in an armchair and a young woman on a bed, staring at nothing. A mortar and pestle are on the floor beside the armchair, and the mortar contains a dark green substance which assumes an inordinate yet quite inexplicable significance.